It is overwhelming. The numbers of people flowing to Europe seeking a new life; a better life; or just a better chance to live, are huge.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 350,000 migrants have registered in Europe this year. The unofficial numbers speak of millions knocking on European doors.
If the figures are mind-boggling, the extent of the tragedy that many are trying to escape is incomprehensible. So it is not surprising that Europe is indeed overwhelmed, verging on the edge of the compassion fatigue that comes from being unable to do the right thing for all the desperate people landing on its shores, and yet unable to stop the flow.
Colleagues in Europe are having the same sort of discussions that Israelis had a few years ago: One of the dilemmas is what to call these “foreigners”: Some choose the neutral term “migrants”; others regard them as “illegal immigrants,” “aliens,” or “infiltrators,” since nearly all of them have crossed more than one border before they arrive in Europe.
Many of those running from the civil wars that followed the Arab Spring are both refugees and economic migrants.
That’s why they didn’t stay in countries like Turkey, where they had refuge from the fighting, but not a chance to improve their lives and give their children a chance to fulfill their potential. It’s the reason they are trying to stow away on trains and trucks crossing the Channel from Calais in France to England; it’s why they are not settling and trying to rebuild lives under the Mediterranean sun in Greece; and it’s why they can be found on the crowded platforms of closed Hungarian train stations or with numbers being inked onto their arms by Czech police, begging for a one-way ticket to Germany, in what seems to be a historical paradox.
It is extraordinary when you recall the life-and-death struggle of Jews to get out of Germany and Europe in World War II and to avoid the trains whose final destination was Nazi concentration and death camps.
But that’s why Germany today feels uneasy about turning the refugees away.
When the numbers of migrants from Africa to Israel grew from a few score a month to thousands, the government responded (relatively late) by constructing a fence along the border with Egypt.
The fence, completed in 2013, stopped the waves of incoming migrants although it was criticized, largely by the Left, as being cruel and not in keeping with the times.
Now Europe finds itself in a similar situation to the one Israel was in.
As I noted in an article titled “The migrants’ tragedy” in 2012, playing on the government’s mind, too, was the fact that among the genuine refugees could be war criminals on the run and even operatives of al-Qaida-affiliated terror cells.
Nowadays, there’s a name more sinister than al-Qaida: Islamic State. The terrorists of the would-be caliphate have spread from one continent to the next, sucking in Boko Haram and other groups on the way.
Of course the vast majority of people leaving Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and African countries are running scared with good reason – they are trying to leave Islamic State and its ugly siblings (or Bashar Assad’s murderous forces) behind them. But it’s not unlikely that hidden among them are terrorists hoping to export a deadly philosophy of global jihad.
In April, Italian police arrested 15 migrants for allegedly throwing 12 people overboard following a fight on a boat from Africa. The dead were Christians, their attackers were Muslims.
It set off red lights that were quickly covered with curtains of political correctness.
The very fact that migrants from places as geographically diverse as Bangladesh, Syria and Chad end up literally in the same boat on their way to European shores indicates that this is not a simple escape from immediate danger, but a mass migration that will forever change Europe’s demographic makeup and characteristics.
And you can be sure some groups, in that murky area between criminal and terrorist, are benefiting from this trafficking.
As I wrote three years ago, discussing the situation in Israel, “we must be careful not to lose that empathy with the plight of those with nowhere to go. But open-mindedness does not necessarily mean open borders for all.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among the most welcoming of the European leaders, has also noted: No country, including hers, can accept them all.
The sheer numbers will also have a political effect in the states where they end up, even if they are not immediately granted the vote: The influx is likely to give a boost to rightwing parties, promoting insular platforms in the guise of self-preservation.
But this should not be a Left vs Right issue. This is about the rights of human beings.
As a recent Israel Radio discussion noted, many countries need workers, including the unskilled, although no one wants illegal workers. Nurses, engineers and doctors are welcome in many countries while other would-be immigrants, lacking the proper permits, are refused entry or arrested, despite having shown initiative and determination in making a long and dangerous trek.
Israel is in a class of its own, probably the only country where there is mass immigration, rather than mass emigration, even in times of war. It gained a huge boost when the Iron Curtain was removed and Jews from the former Soviet Union arrived by the planeload, some as the Scuds were falling in the Gulf War. Their contribution has helped push the country forward in every sphere: technology, the arts and sports.
The current wave of immigrants from Ukraine and France could bring similar long-term benefits.
And for all the agonizing over the very real problems facing immigrants from Ethiopia, and their Israeli-born children, it is clear that here, too, the country has been enriched by their presence even if the Promised Land is not all they dreamed of.
WE LIVE in a strange era: My colleague Amotz Asa-El recently noted, we live in “an age of walls.” He pointed out that “our era’s walls are the inversion of the Cold War’s fences; instead of blocking escapees, as the Berlin Wall did, ours challenge infiltrators.”
On the one hand, countries like Hungary that were proud to have pulled down walls some 25 years ago are now hastily erecting barriers and fences; on the other hand, the borders in the global village are still blurred. As Israel Radio’s Oren Nahari noted, it did not seem unusual that Google last month named Indian-born and -educated Sundar Pichai as its next chief executive officer.
Ironically, while countries around the globe are putting up fences, it is Islamic State that is pulling them down – erasing the old borders determined by the Western powers.
As Asa-El wrote: “Just as Israel’s fences symbolized the collapse of its New Middle East dream, Europe’s mark the demise of its United Europe vision.
“There will be more fences in upcoming years, some physical, some legal, and some commercial, and this is besides the mental and emotional walls which are already erect in a growing number of places, and which will be even thicker than our era’s physical walls.”
There is a huge amount of hypocrisy in many of the discussions on the migrant crisis: Britain is not battling Polish workers, for example, because they can identify with them.
And I keep hoping, probably in vain, that when Europeans find a way to alleviate the plight of the migrants they will also learn to help the Roma (Gypsies) who have been living among them – persecuted and in poverty – for centuries.
What can be done? There are no magic solutions.
Europe (and not just Europe) needs to determine clear guidelines and policy: defining criteria for who can stay, under what circumstances and for how long.
Israel, not much better but no worse than many Western nations, similarly needs a defined policy on the migrants.
Unending detention at the Holot facility, as the High Court has ruled, is not an option; neither is their release with no money, limited possibilities of finding work, and nowhere to live. It should not be left to charity organizations to take care of the migrants’ needs.
Above all, governments and the citizens of fortunate countries need to remember that these aren’t “aliens” who have arrived as a different species from a different planet. They are human beings from our ever-evolving world. We must ensure that their basic needs are met wherever they are, and that includes the millions of refugees the European public doesn’t see in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The true tragedy is not taking place in Europe: There will be no end to the mass flow of migrants unless they can see the chance of having a better future in the countries they left.